The Little Telescope That Just Discovered Three Exoplanets and One-Upped Kepler

IF YOU WANT to look for habitable planets—that is, planets like Earth—you might want to start by looking for stars like the Sun. Using this extremely sensible strategy, the space telescope Kepler, which survived a recent nail-biter, has found a whopping 1,041 confirmed exoplanets. It works. What you might not want to do—what would be crazy—is look for small, faint stars that astronomers aren’t even sure can have planets.

But guess what? Yesterday, astronomers looking through the TRAPPIST telescope announced they’ve found three exoplanets orbiting one such ultracool dwarf star just 40 light years away. “The team really took a risk,” says Julien de Wit, a post doc at MIT who helped analyze the TRAPPIST data. “And it paid off.”

TRAPPIST stands for the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. The astronomers responsible for such a contorted acronym are, of course, Belgian. (Trappist monks in Belgium are famous for their beer.) In 2010, Michaël Gillon and colleagues at the University of Liège got their small prototype telescope built in the desert of Chile.